“When North Carolina Indians Went on the Warpath” by Christopher Arris Oakley is a beautiful article capturing the events of 1958 when the citizens of Robeson County chased the Klu Klux Klan out of their home land. The article is well formatted and filled with wonderfully elucidating photographs, but what chiefly makes it beautiful is the deep joy of the story of the Lumbee and the KKK. Joy is an unusual word to arise when the KKK is the subject matter at hand but in this case it is entirely apt. The story of when the Lumbee chased the KKK out of Robeson County could have easily been a tragedy or a tale of violence meeting violence; instead, perhaps miraculously, it is a story of justice triumphing over violence.
The Hayes Pond confrontation should have, by all accounts, ended in violence. KKK leader James “Catfish” Cole came to Robeson County with the ugliest of intentions: To put the Lumbees where he wanted them, below himself, using fear and force. Understandably, Lumbee emotions were not calm in reaction. Oakley writes, “Cole expected hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Klan supporters. According to one such rumor, the sales of ammunition in Robeson gun stores skyrocketed…By Saturday afternoon, many Robeson residents fully anticipated violence as word spread that four groups planned to converge that night near Hayes pond: Klansmen, Lumbees, county and state authorities, and local and state media” (Oakley). But when the Klan and the Lumbee met at Hayes Pond nothing violent happened. Cameras flashed and gun shots rang out but when the dust settled, no one was dead. In the end, Lumbee men and women were able to demonstrate that KKK presence in Robeson County was despicable and intolerable simply by showing up and showing up together at Hayes Pond. The KKK has never returned to Robeson County.
But Oakley’s article offers more than just a happy ending. Oakley does a thoughtful analysis of the media coverage of the “Battle of Hayes Pond.” The media treatment of the story was supportive and celebratory, which Oakley applauds, but it was also filled with stereotypes and myths, revealing alarming issues with popular conceptions of Indian identity. Oakley writes, “Reporters and editors often flavored their stories on the “Maxton Riot” with references to Plains Indian culture, despite the fact that no Lumbees or any Indians in North Carolina ever lived in tipis or surrounded wagon trains while on a ‘warpath’” (Oakley). Headlines such as “How The Indians ‘Scalped’ The Klan” and “…Whooping Indians Take Warpath” adorned the front pages of newspapers across the country (Oakley).
This narrow and false idea, that all Indians look like Plains Indians, is hurtful to Southern tribes, whose cultures are vastly different from the caricatures of Plains’ culture. It is partly due to ideas like these, that an Indian tribe looks exactly a certain way, that the Lumbee tribe has been withheld full Federal recognition. But even more detrimental than suspended recognition, is the less than human treatment that comes from attitudes of fascination and ignorance. When Indian people are reduced to stereotypes, they are played with like amusing toys, only to be disregarded as soon as interest wanes. The media did not question the legitimacy of the Lumbees’ Indian identity when they were publishing headlines about their heroic deeds. But the media portrayal of Lumbees as Indian warriors defending their homeland was disregarded when it came to treating the Lumbees as full fledged Indians in legal and political arenas.
All too often this is popular culture’s posture towards Indians. When a tribe does something worthy of attention, they are admired and adored. But as soon as the admirable deed has faded from memory, the tribe is forgotten. In the end, the idea that Oakley’s article imprinted on my mind was this: Indian peoples cannot be venerated and ignored on the vacillating whims of outsiders. If citizens of the United States wish to take from Indians culturally they must be willing to give to them politically. Tribes must be treated consistently, as neighboring peoples who deserve attention always, not just when they are cultural darlings.